Once in a long while, usually when we are taking about something that their dog does that bothers them, a client will tell me that they “tried training on” their dog, “and it didn’t work.” That phrasing always sets me back a bit, because it demonstrates a limited understanding of what “training” is, and also of what dogs are capable of doing.
Training is the process of building a vocabulary of signals that allow the human handler to communicate to an animal, quietly and efficiently, what behaviors are desired. Training is not a one-way street —training also involves the human handler learning to “read” the animal, and sometimes teaching the animal cues the animal can use, so the human can tell what the animal needs and what works for the non-human partner.
People who say that “training didn’t work on” their dog have an idea that training is essentially a process of installing “sit” and “down” buttons to control behavior. This view sees training as a finite process with a starting point and an end point, often with no maintenance or development afterwards. Training can be that, if we want, however it does take an expert technician to install those buttons and keep them from sticking. Even when installed by an expert technician, those buttons will usually stick without maintenance. It really is more fun to approach the training relationship as something you build/do WITH your dog rather than just a procedure you do TO your dog.
People often ask me if “old dogs can be trained.” I suppose this question arises from our emphasis on puppy classes and early learning, as well as on the tendency for institutions like Guide Dogs for the Blind to use their own puppy rearing protocols. There is also a strong bias in our society towards putting young dogs into training for various jobs and dog sports. It would be of benefit to remember that part of the reason for using dogs started as puppies for these jobs is that the dogs’ training represents a significant investment in time and money, and the greatest return on that investment is achieved by getting an early start. It is also faster and easier to habituate a young dog with few expectations to their eventual work environment than it is to habituate an older dog. This doesn’t mean that older dogs CANNOT learn. They do, however, often take longer to reach proficiency at complex tasks than younger animals, or dogs with lots of learning experience.
Human beings learn throughout their lives. We establish new relationships, read books, learn new words, acquire new skills and refine old ones all the time. If there is a payoff in learning something new, we will do it. It may be more difficult as we age to remember new information, but if the information is important — or repeated often enough — we remember.
The same holds true with dogs. If we make new information or new skills important enough to them through practice and payoff (read: repetition and reward!), they will eventually “get it.” Dogs who have a lot of practice with early learning are more skilled at acquiring new information/skills than dogs who have had very little experience with training. However, if we are kind and consistent (and persistent!) and make the behaviors we want PAY for the dog, even an arthritic 14 year old dog with vertigo can earn a title in Nosework.
So… the next time you are frustrated because your six year old exuberant Labrador nearly takes down Grandma in a paroxysmal frenzy of joy or your nine year old terrier threatens to break the window in an urgent need to eat a cat, remember that with patience and persistence (and possibly professional help) you CAN teach your dog… to do something ELSE instead!